Friday, November 19, 2010

Theater, God, and worker justice

Yesterday was a very busy day. At Interfaith Worker Justice we had coordinated the organization of 30+ events from all over the United States protesting wage theft, the failure to pay workers their legally or contractually promised wages, and they were all to occur on Nov. 18, just a week before Thanksgiving. Naturally, the office was a bit tenser for the past two weeks than normal, but like any large event, the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft happened whether or not we had all of our ducks in order. There was a certain feeling of electricity, even as I went about my day-to-day activities of drafting e-mail updates, putting information on the IWJ website, and transcribing conference call notes. It all reminded me just a bit of my days in high school as an actor on stage.

In the great Elizabethan  comedy, As You Like It, William Shakespeare wrote this about life and theater:

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”

The entire monologue explains the different stages of a man’s life, but it certainly has greater implications than just that. I literally played many roles in theater, and I even considered studying theater at Bucknell University, though my down-to-earth pragmatism quickly got the best of me (I majored in psychology and Spanish). After all, I had a call to ministry, not to the stage. Or so I thought. As a volunteer youth ministry leader, I found that at times I had to change metaphorical hats rapidly, from jovial teammate in a dodgeball game to deadly serious speak as I gave the “talk” about Jesus at Young Life club. And to be totally truthful, there is a significant amount of theater that occurs in worker justice organizing as well. Sometimes it is literal, as shown by some events yesterday that utilized some street theater dramatizing the act and effects of wage theft. More often it is the subtle changing of tones to push people to action, whether they are Roman Catholic priests or illegally unpaid workers.

My exact “part” in the stage of IWJ and even the greater Chicago area is complicated. As a new arrival to Chicago, I have many opportunities to explain to strangers what I’m doing here. The circumstances of the environment often play a role in my answer. I might tell someone at my church that I am United Methodist missionary and then smile, nod, and escape as the nice church lady tries to express her approval. If I am feeling a bit more spunky and difficult, then I describe myself as a religion-labor organizer who works to involve clergy and laity in the struggle for worker rights. I might even raise a fist in solidarity. The look on my conversation partner’s face is priceless.

Most of the time I say something like the following: “I am a United Methodist missionary who is serving at a workers advocacy group called Interfaith Worker Justice.” It is neutral enough, and it all but guarantees further discussion. How am I missionary and I’m still in the United States? Will I try to convert them? What in God’s name did I study in college? It’s often a great way to talk both about social justice and the Gospel that I’ve dedicated my life to, often a precursor to an awkward silence, often a thought provocateur. It’s not often a great way to engage in small talk with a cute girl at a bar.

I was reminded of all these things yesterday as about thirty worker rights activists gathered to support a worker who had been owed over $4,000 in back wages from his former employer. It was a cold, November morning on Chicago’s North Side only five blocks from Lake Michigan, eventually we were able to move into the car wash waiting room, where we did wait—for almost an hour and a half while negotiations continued between the owner, the worker, two clergy, and the workers’ center director. None of us expected to hang out for that long, but it was a great stage for me to go through the motions of explaining my “part” at Interfaith Worker Justice. What I found was a series of very rich conversations about the role of the Church in social justice, and the role of social justice in various churches, with a reporter, a community organizer, and a Democratic Socialist. Even though I was playing a certain “part”—both representing the United Methodist Church and IWJ—I was surprised and pleased at how comfortable the exchanges were. Most of the folks were people of faith, I found out, and the thought of a “domestic” missionary was as refreshing to them as it had been to me last spring.

Followers of the Abrahamic faiths often refer to God as divine “author”, and like an actor at rehearsal, we spend much time trying to determine what our role really is. If only it were as simple as looking to a book for my lines and stage directions…yet our human experience is so much more profound because we are afforded the opportunity to write at least part of the script ourselves. Therefore, taking hold of the pen, let’s write a world that upraises peace and justice, love for our fellow humans, and a constant embrace with our Creator Mother-Father God.

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